Passive smoking is not just some “third person singular number” any more. It affects you, me and our family

The chest X-ray stunned me: telltale signs of early lung cancer. But that is not unusual in my practice. It was the profile of the patient that was unusual. She was a 45-year-old housewife, who had no business to have such a disease. Until we got the history that her husband was a chronic chain-smoker, who puffed even in bed. One more victim of ‘passive’ smoking.

It is a long active process that needs planned ‘caring’, delicate ‘curing’ to ‘execute’. The first stage is ‘caring’. The process of germination is done with the utmost care, because the seedling is highly susceptible to parasites. The quality of care offered to the germinating seedlings would often beat the newborn intensive care units in many Third World countries.

Apatite-induced germination is one of the most popular ones, despite the fact that this naturally occurring mineral may contain residues of polonium and radium which may contaminate the growing plant. Once the small plants attain a favourable size, they will be replanted carefully in the fields. The small green plants dotting the brown earth grow into an expanse of green by the year-end, with their large leaves photosynthesising sunlight and groundfeed into nutrients, albeit a little different from other plants. Once the leaves mature, they will be carefully harvested. The golden brown ones, once the hallmark of those grown in Virginia, are supposed to be the best and most sought-after.

After harvesting, the long process of drying begins. Ironically, it is called ‘curing’. Air, sunlight, fire and heat are used for curing, but smoke is supposed to be the best one. The specially heated smoke oxidises and destroys the good carotenoids of the leaf, while keeping the ones that impart the aroma and taste. What is left behind are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — the benzopyrenes, the nitrosamines, with shades of cadmium, nickel and arsenic, the top slot carcinogens, chemicals that are proven to cause cancer on contact.

The benign looking leaf of nicotiana tabacum has finally earned its colours. The next stage depends on what kind of housing is allotted to tobacco. The low-cost ones end up cocooned in tobacco leaves (beedi), the aristocratic types in milk white paper tubes (cigarettes), some in tin-cans aromated and fragranced as chew, and some desi ones as pan masala, reaching the local shop.

Whatever the packaging, the nicotine kick-starts an array of chemical neurotransmitters in the brain, which is perceived as pleasure. Over time the central nervous system gets hooked on to it in such a manner that we need ‘one more’, and the cycle of craving starts.

Unlike any other human invention, smoking kills and harms not only the user but also the innocent bystander. From unborn babies, to school kids, from young housewives to senior citizens, all are at risk of passive smoking and contracting diseases ranging from lung cancer to heart disease, pancreatic cancer to bronchitis, the who’s who of deadly ailments.

As per the WHO database, 55 million people died worldwide in 2004 of tobacco-related diseases, approximately 100 times the 2004 tsunami death toll. But that’s not the point. Passive smoking, as per the 2010 WHO report, killed 1,65,000 children worldwide, most of them from Africa and South East Asia, the source of smoke being their own home and not a public place where smoking ban is in place.

By careful ‘caring’ and ‘curing,’ the tobacco ‘executes’ innocent non-users as painfully as does the users. Let us all stop this sinister plan to kill us. Passive smoking is not just some “third person singular number” any more. It affects you, me and our family. We have to stop it before it kills us and maims our progeny.

On October 2, 2008, the anti-smoking law came into effect in India. It prohibits smoking in public places but home, vehicles and roads are exempt.

Violators are to be fined Rs. 200, the cost four packets of cigarettes, just enough for two days for a heavy smoker. Ridiculous is an understatement.

Since June 2004, Norway had totally banned smoking in public places including bars and restaurants. As I got out of Oslo’s Gardermoen airport two billboards caught my attention. One said: ‘The only thing we smoke here is salmon.’ The other ‘Incredible India’ – I could not agree more!

(The writer is Head, Dept of Cardiology, PRS Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram. Email: tinynair@gmail.com)

More In: Open Page | Opinion